VIDEO: Instilling Collaboration

How can a leader instill collaboration?

In a previous video, I spoke about the need for members of teams to retain their individuality.

Teamwork is essential to getting things done, and to do it effectively managers need to draw upon the talents of individuals who have a stake in the outcome. There might be no “I” in team, but as Michael Jordan, whose singular play powered the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles, used to say, “But there is in win!”

First posted on SmartBrief 8/17/2012

How to Defuse Discord on Your Team (HBR)

Last week in Cairo President Barack Obama stated, “So long as our relationship is defined by differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”

While the speech went into some detail about how the President seeks rapprochement with the Muslim world, this single paragraph laid bare a root cause of the conflict. Neither side trusts the other; those who seek to exploit the distrust emerge as the beneficiaries rather than the populace at large. Not only does that statement provide good insight into U.S.-Islamic world relations, it gives any student of leadership an insight into conflict in the workplace.

Too often opponents take more comfort in the disagreement than in solution because they derive power and influence from discord. Such conflict not only threatens productivity, it creates a terrible work environment that contributes to poor morale, absenteeism and even lower rates of employee retention. Managers cannot allow disagreements to erode into discord. Here are some suggestions for seeking common purpose.

Diagnose the root cause. Find out why co-workers are in conflict with one another. Often the roots of the discord lie in things that occurred long ago. One person may feel slighted because his ideas were rejected by his boss whereas those of a coworker were accepted. Another might feel that he is not receiving his fair share of time and resources to complete a project. Still another may feel overlooked when she did not receive an expected promotion. Such issues when not addressed promptly can fester over time and can breed hostility.

Stay high and dry. If a boss is responsible for problems, he should acknowledge them and apologize. Look for ways to improve the situation through further discussion and dialogue. However, if the roots of discord occurred before you were manager, acknowledge the hurt feelings but do not take sides. In other words, don’t swim in the water under the bridge; walk over the bridge. Failure to do so simply allows individuals to wallow in their misery.

Defuse the conflict. Make it clear that cooperation is mandatory. Managers who allow employees to act on grudges are giving the aggrieved more reasons to be disagreeable. Establish a no-tolerance policy for disagreements over people and personalities. Hold everyone accountable, including yourself, to that standard.

Find common ground. People in conflict have no difficulty identifying differences; those differences are what fuel their disagreements. The challenge for a manager is to get the conflicting parties to put aside their differences. So, identify common values. For example, both parties will want the company to succeed; that is a common purpose. Make it clear that their discord is destroying that value proposition and insist that they stop it.

Follow through. Just because you have gotten people to stop shouting at each other does not mean they are working together. Continue to monitor the situation. Watch for warning signs among former combatants such as angry expressions, avoided eye contact, and the silent treatment. Affirm individuals’ contributions but at the same time, make it clear that cooperation is required.Those who fail to treat co-workers with respect will be removed from the team.

Let me make it clear that discord is different from dissent. Discord is disruptive because it harms individuals and productivity. Dissent can be positive when it causes people to re-examine an idea or an issue; it promotes dialogue. Sometimes dissent will change minds; other times it can re-affirm an intended course of action.

Defining oneself by differences is a zero-sum game; it breeds few winners and mostly losers. Defining an organization by its common purpose leads to trust and ultimately a foundation for achieving sustainable results.

First posted on HBR.org 6.08.2009

VIDEO: Providing Inspiration to Your Employees

It is a truism that people want to believe in causes greater than themselves. That belief is central to the nature of purpose and its role in organizational intention, and even in the way we focus.

It is also true for leadership. Followers want to believe that their leader stands for something and, to an extent, might be better than anyone else at the job. Such conviction defines the reason followers defer willingly to leaders.

It comes down to doing well by doing good. In doing so, leaders provide followers with an example of purposeful and principled living. People not only want to follow such leaders but also do so with great enthusiasm.

First posted on SmartBrief on 9/07/2012

What a Little Blue Stone Can Teach You about Leadership

Recently on a visit to Toronto I stayed in charming boutique hotel, the Cosmopolitan. Guests who stay in this Zen-styled retreat receive a complimentary gift of polished blue quartz.

A description that accompanied the stone read “blue quartz is a healing stone that helps develop intuition, enhances creativity, refines communications skills, eases tension, and strengthens the immune system. It signifies power, success, idealism, increased perceptions and healing, spirituality, wisdom, psychic awareness and strong protective energies.”

While I cannot attest to the transformative powers of blue quartz, I can say that its description, aside from strengthening one’s immune system, pretty much describes what and how leaders need to be doing for themselves and their followers. And with the stone as “our guide” let’s explore this idea further.

Intuition and perception. Managers need to tune into what is going on with their people, especially in tough times. It is not enough to monitor progress toward goals; managers need to find out how people are doing it. For example, are they logging excessive overtime to meet a deadline? Or are they sitting around finding make work projects? How are people feeling about what they are doing? Tense, anxious and nervous? Or unfocused and apathetic? Some managers can sense the mood intuitively but good managers make a habit of talking to their people frequently. You respect personal boundaries, but you can ask questions about how people feel about their jobs.

Creativity. As entrepreneur and Harvard Press author, Scott Anthony, has been teaching us, there is no time like the present to encourage creative expression. Creativity begins by stimulating the thought process. Managers who put people into positions where they have some time to think may benefit. For example, give people an hour a week to think about their job and how they might do it differently. You might also arrange for a field trip to an art museum, science exhibit, or even a sporting event.[ Yes, I know you are not in sixth grade but breaking the routine can stimulate creative thinking]

Power. Leadership rests on authority, that is, the power to make things happen. Responsibility dictates that such power will be used to effect positive outcomes. That does not mean that everyone will be happy with the application of power. Organizational leadership requires hard decisions that will not satisfy every need but are intended to ensure organizational success.

And while I did make an exception for the immune system, on second thought I could be overlooking something. Perhaps good leaders do improve immunity, maybe not physically but certainly organizationally. Effective leadership protects the organization from the kind of internal strife that tears so many organizations apart. Good leaders will not tolerate behaviors that denigrate individuals. Such leaders are those who seek to lead by example and thus hold themselves accountable for ensuring that people do right by one another. This is no protection against recession certainly, but it does ensure greater levels of harmony (immunity perhaps) that helps an organization function more effectively by cooperating.

Certainly if a little blue stone promises us so much, we as human beings can do our part by acting on those expectations. We can lead our teams more effectively and achieve our goals in ways that enrich lives as they add value to the organization.

First posted on HBR.org 6/11/2009

VIDEO: Be Authentic When You Speak

The ability to communicate is not merely the ability to string words together coherently. It is the ability to authentically connect with people.

If you are in charge of an organization you may have the ability to tell people what to do, but you will never have the ability to tell them what to think. Great leaders do. They win over followers on the strength of what they say and how they act, and that is why the sincerity of communication is so critical.

Good leaders understand that public leadership is public theater, and rather than shy from it, they embrace it — authentically. And so, too, do their followers.

First posted on Smart Brief on 9/21/2012

What Executives Need to Succeed (HBR)

“I don’t know anything about cars,” revealed Edward Whitacre in an interview with Bloomberg News given after being named the new chairman of General Motors. “A business is a business, and I think I can learn about cars. I’m not that old, and I think the business principles are the same.”

Long-time Michigan political observer, Jack Lessenberry, lauded GM’s hiring of Whitacre as an example of the new leadership the company will require if it is to succeed.

But Whitacre is joining a company with a history of rejecting executives from the outside. H. Ross Perot and Jerry York, as a surrogate for investor Kirk Kerkorian, tried without success to shake things up at the board level. Another senior executive who failed to change G.M. was Elmer Johnson. According to the New York Times, Johnson was so frustrated he wrote a memo saying “Teamwork has been replaced by Balkanization. Our culture discourages open, frank debate among G.M. executives in the pursuit of problem resolution.”

Hiring an executive from the outside for any company is always a gamble. According to a 2008 study conducted by the Institute for Executive Development (IED) and the Alexcel Group, thirty percent of executives hired from the outside fail to meet expectations within the first two years. One key reason that executives — not simply those from the outside — fail, is an inability to collaborate with others.

Negative trends aside, it is useful to consider those positive characteristics that will make the newcomer an asset to his new business.

Keen intelligence. Not only do you have to be a quick study, you have to be able to size up the gaps as well as the opportunities. Learning the business is the easy part; finding out what works and what doesn’t requires not only experience but insight. Lou Gerstner, a former McKinsey partner, was particularly adept at determining corporate strengths and weaknesses. After trimming IBM to fighting weight, Gerstner pursued strategies that would capitalize on IBM’s unique capabilities rather seeking to be all things to all customers.

People skills. It is common sense to value your people but it may be “so common” that it is often neglected. The outside leader needs to reach out to employees and treat them as colleagues. One technique that many executives employ and that I encourage newly promoted executives to adopt when meeting their direct reports for the first time is to ask: what can I do to help you? Such a question does two things: one, it establishes the direct reports as the experts; two, it positions the leader as one who wants his people to succeed.

Strong will. The hidebound mindset that made hiring someone from the outside necessary will seek to maintain the status quo. Some in senior management will feel slighted that one of their own is not running the show. While they do want the organization to succeed, they will want to protect their domains and their influence. A new leader must stand up to entrenched powers and their stale ideas.Therefore, he will have to fight hard to be heard, believed and eventually followed in his own organization.

One executive who has shown strong backbone in bending the culture of his new employer, Ford Motor Company, to a common purpose is former Boeing executive, Alan Mulally. As reported in Fortune, Mulally, as CEO, has instituted the One Ford approach, which seeks globally-derived vehicle platforms as well as a more collaborative approach to planning and execution. [Note: While Mulally was new to the auto industry when Ford hired him in 2006, he is an engineer with extensive background in product development and manufacturing.]

Organizations bear responsibility for the high washout rate. The IED/Alexcel study also demonstrated that on-boarding programs and mentoring programs are valuable. Executive coaching, too, can help. In other words, don’t let the executive fend for himself; provide him assistance.

For the sake of us taxpayers who have a stake in General Motors, I hope the company provides Whitacre — as well as any other outsiders he may bring with him — with more than a tutorial on the automotive business. He, like all outside executives, needs the support of management so that he can earn its trust and help the company succeed in very trying times.

First posted on HBR.org 6/15/2009

VIDEO: Kiss Up, Kick Down Boss

The next time you want to hire an executive for your organization, find out how he treats people who work for him.

Senior executives are the face of the organization. When selecting them, you need to be careful that they radiate the values of your organization. Your brand image is at stake. One bad hire in a senior position can be harmful to a corporate reputation.

First posted on Smart Brief on 10/05/2012

Find Ways to Make Good News (HBR)

Stephen Tyrone Johns died as he lived, helping other people. Johns opened the door for the man who shot him, a white supremacist who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum where Johns worked as a security guard. Friends and co-workers remember Johns, an imposing man who stood six-and-a-half feet tall, as a “gentle giant” who enjoyed his work and was well liked by others.

To its credit, CNN.com played the Johns story on its home page on and off for a day or so. Typically the victims don’t get much coverage; only the killers. In the coming days and weeks we will still get our fill of information about the man who shot Mr. Johns, but it was heartening to see CNN go counter to this trend.

CNN’s coverage also shows those of us who write and teach about leadership that while we cannot change the world overnight, we certainly can seek to change things within our own control. And so here’s a suggestion for any leader who is wrestling with tough issues in these tough times: You should continue to address the impact of the financial crisis on your business, but you owe yourself and your people a break from the relentless progress of bad news.

Challenge yourself to find one good piece of good news every day, or every other day, and share it with your people. You will find these stories in the news at large but also in your company specifically. Share these stories with your colleagues. Going a step further, you might even consider making some good news, too. Here are some suggestions to spread some good cheer.

  • Recognize a colleague for a contribution she has made and publicly thank her for it.
  • Spring for lunch for the team; nothing fancy — pizza and sandwiches will do.
  • Hand out coupons for free movie tickets or DVD rentals.
  • Sponsor a community volunteer day, e.g. give people a day off to work in their communities.
  • Create opportunities to share positive work experiences and lessons learned in your team meetings.

Spreading good cheer will not save your department from further cutbacks; it will not help your company be a more formidable competitor. It may not even save your job. But what it will do is get you in the habit of thinking more positively. That has its virtues. Not only will you brighten the lives of those with whom you work. You will also train yourself to approach your own job with a more optimistic attitude.

First posted on HBR.org 6.18.2009

VIDEO: Surround Yourself with People Who Will Talk Back to You

Shakespeare wrote in “Henry IV, Part 2”: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

The man or woman at the top of the pyramid must work hard to enable people to speak truth to power. That is not easy. None of us likes push-back, especially when we are working hard to get things done right. But for those who report to a senior executive telling them the truth may be what’s most important.

First posted on Smart Brief 11/02/2012

Great Communicators Make Great Explainers (HBR)

In the months since Barack Obama has taken office, a curious thing has occurred in his communication style. He has toned down the rhetoric and geared up the details. As Don Baer who once worked for President Bill Clinton put it, Obama is now “the Great Explainer.”

In doing so, Obama is following in the tradition of a previous president, Franklin Roosevelt. At his best, Roosevelt, either on radio or to the press, took on the role of a trusted friend explaining things in simple terms so that anyone could understand them. For example, Roosevelt compared the U.S. program of Lend Lease to Britain in 1941 to a neighbor lending a garden hose to a neighbor trying to put out a house fire.

Explanation is a key attribute of leadership communications. Leaders know to inject their communications with verve and enthusiasm as a means of persuasion, but they also need to include an explanation for the excitement. What does it mean and why are we doing it are critical questions that every leader must answer with straightforward explanations. Here are three ways to become an effective explainer.

Define what it is. The purpose of an explanation is to describe the issue, the initiative, or the problem. For example, if you are pushing for cost reductions, explain why they are necessary and what they will entail. Put the cost reductions into the context of business operations. Be certain to explicate the benefits.

Define what it isn’t. Here is where the leader moves into the “never assume mode.” Be clear to define the exclusions. For example, returning to our cost reduction issue, if you are asking for reductions in costs, not people, be explicit. Otherwise employees will assume they are being axed. Leave no room for assumptions. This is not simply true for potential layoffs but for any business issue.

Define what you want people to do. This becomes an opportunity to issue the call for action. Establishing expectations is critical. Cost reductions mean employees will have to do more with less; explain what that will entail in clear and precise terms. Leaders can also use the expectations step as a challenge for people to think and do differently. Your explanation then takes on broader significance.

Good explainers need to be careful, however, not to overdo the details. In a town hall meeting format, the leader sketches the facts and supports them with data points. Dwelling too long on a single point, or points, risks not simply boring the audience but confusing them. Save detailed explanations, which are necessary, for written documentation or team meetings. The latter presents an opportunity for the next level of leaders to translate the communications into action steps.

As such, detailed explanations work well in face-to-face situations, or in team meetings. They become opportunities to elaborate on possibilities. More important, they also allow individuals to offer their feedback, something that typically cannot occur in large-scale town hall events. The explanation becomes an invitation for discussion, and skillful leaders use it to communicate not simply facts, but also to engage support for their ideas.

One final point. Explanations may include aspirations. On March 31, 1945, Franklin Roosevelt gave a briefing to Congress on his meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in which the future of post-War Europe was discussed.

During the course of his presentation to Congress, as H.W. Brands writes in a brilliant new biography of Roosevelt, Traitor to His Class, the President, only weeks from death, mused momentarily to talk about the need for enduring peace. “Twenty-five years ago, American fighting men [in reference to World War I] looked to the world to finish the work of peace for which they fought and suffered. We failed them then. We cannot fail them again.”

FDR, like all good leaders, knew how to close a good explanation with an equally good challenge; it puts people on notice and gives them a reason for action.

First posted on HBR.org 6/22/2009